Photo by: Mike Kwasniak Photo by: Mike Kwasniak

Review: Tommy at Theatre Royal Stratford East

Written for Everything Theatre

Ramps on the Moon is a long-term collaboration between a number of theatres and theatre companies that aim to create shows that are accessible by and inclusive of people who are d/Deaf, disabled and visually impaired. On their latest outing, The Who’s 1969 rock opera is given a vigorous makeover that mercilessly ties the story, starting in WWII, to the present day.

As a young boy, Tommy witnessed a traumatic incident that has caused him to retreat into his own mind. He might be unresponsive to his environment, but – as anyone with a passing familiarity with Pete Townshend and co knows – this ‘deaf, dumb and blind kid’ is also very, very good at pinball.

The book is definitely not the show’s strongest suit. The songs are amazing, but the plotline tying them together is pretty tenuous; particularly in the second act, with Tommy’s sudden rise to Messiah-status, it’s hard to ignore the feeling that all of it makes very little sense. Subtlety seems to be a dirty word, and complex issues like child abuse and bullying are skated over with remarkable speed. Act two also has little in the way of new songs, instead mostly reprising those we already heard before the interval. Nevertheless, no one is going to complain at another rendition of the show’s most famous number, Pinball Wizard.

The thing is, none of this really matters, because Ramps on the Moon have taken a flawed book and given it a production that’s simply, utterly brilliant. Particularly in a show like this, which deals with how society treats disability, seeing significant numbers of d/Deaf and disabled actors on stage changes the experience. In terms of production values – first-rate cast, eye-catching set and costumes, great live band – this was always going to be an excellent show, but having this company adds a poignancy that makes it a must-see production.

I have rarely seen a group of actors who are so attuned to one another, and the end result is definitely a group effort. (That being said, it’s impossible not to mention Peter Straker’s stand out performance as the Acid Queen.) The band are an absolute joy as well, and positioned on stage they are an intrinsic part of the action, occasionally even coming forward to take a minor role. Yes, sometimes it all gets a little bit loud, but to be honest, I’d have been disappointed if it hadn’t; it’s not really a rock opera if it doesn’t have some kick to it, after all.

Tommy features captioning, surtitles that are projected above the stage, as well as integrated BSL interpretation. This means that, rather than having a BSL interpreter at the side of the stage, signing is done by the actors as part of the show. It makes for a stimulating and energetic evening that is accessible for a diverse audience, both disabled and not. My plus one, for example, was quite thrilled to discover that captioning allowed him to follow along with the lyrics, which in turn meant that he understood the show a lot better. (He doesn’t have any hearing impairments, he’s just a self-diagnosed ‘can’t listen to the music and lyrics at the same time’ person.)

With this show, Ramps on the Moon have proven beyond a doubt that accessible and inclusive theatre does not have to be good ‘in spite of’, but that its quality can, at least partly, lie in the ‘because of’. I hope the rest of the theatre world is taking notes.

This show has now completed its run at Theatre Royal Stratford East